A Q&A with Ashley Verrill about Proactive Customer Service

A couple weeks ago, I came across an article from Software Advice called How US Airways Delivers Proactive Customer Service Using Their IVR by Ashley Verrill. I thought that it is spot on with our belief that there has got to be a better way to build phone systems. It gives a lot of great practical tips for anyone who is trying to build out a smart IVR. So we called up Ashley to dig in a little further for our readers. Enjoy!

This was one of the most thorough and helpful “how-to” articles on IVRs that I have read in a long time. What stands out to me is how you detail the processes and measurements that any company can begin implementing now to improve their phone system. What inspired you to write this?

Thank you very much! This topic basically emerged out of a previous article I’d written on proactive customer service that resonated really well with my blog audience. It was really high-level, so with my next article I wanted to drill into one tactic really specifically. I’d read an article about what US Airways was doing with their IVR and thought it would make for an interesting how-to piece for those looking to provide more proactive customer service via their voice response system. It’s not truly proactive service in the sense that’s it’s solving the customer’s problem before they have to reach out to you (or in some cases, before they even know they have a problem), but it was an interesting take on the idea; not to mention just a really cool use of the technology. In general, I see more and more discussions about proactive customer service. I expect it to continue to be a hot topic among customer service / customer experience folks.

There have been companies like GetHuman that have risen up to help people bypass phone trees and get right to a human. Do you see proactive solutions being the answer to people screaming into their phone “operator!” in frustration?

Yes and no. Yes in the fact that systems like US Airways’ immediately recognize the caller by their phone number and suggest a solution based on where they are in the customer lifecycle; so, basically they never have to play around in the IVR, they immediately get the solution they most likely called for. I say most likely, because there are still cases, of course, where the customer deviates from the usual reason why they would call at that time. In these cases, the customer then will have to click through to another option to talk to a live agent, or they might abandon the call altogether, which is not proactive customer service. I said no because proactive customer service in the true sense, as I mentioned, involves reaching out to customers before they have to call you. To be truly proactive, you need more than new software. You need the initiative to look at your customer lifecycle and identify those places where customers are most likely to reach out to you for support, then find ways you can preempt their outreach. Until you do this, the technology will be completely useless to you.

This technology has been around for a couple decades, but it seems that only a handful of companies seem to really do it (like US Airways). For the few proactive IVRs that I have experienced, they have always delighted me as a customer. What do you see as some of the biggest reasons why more companies haven’t implemented this when the effect can be so positive for customer satisfaction?

A couple of reasons. It used to be that customer service was really just seen as a “have to have,” where the goal was to provide the minimal amount possible for solving the customer’s issue in the least costly way possible. Now, companies are realizing more and more the value in increasing customer satisfaction even one percentage point. We are entering the age of the customer experience, which means companies see this as an area of strategic growth, and as a result, investment. Finding ways to solve your customers issues faster is one way to increase their satisfaction. The second reason why I think more haven’t adopted this technology, or at least not in the way US Airways has, is because only recently has speech recognition and Natural Language Processing progressed to the degree to where this technology does really work well. People ask questions in lots of different ways — NLP technology has gotten progressively better by literally learning these variations in the way people talk. This prevents customers from having to repeat their question, or be transferred to an operator when the IVR can’t understand them, which is frustrating. So that’s another reason.

I used to consult with organizations who were focused on improving user experience. What struck me as strange was that marketing and UX departments almost always focused on apps or the web and ignored the phone system which can have as much if not more impact on the brand experience as other mediums. How can proactive phone systems help the brand experience?

I totally agree. Everyone talks about the increase of self service online, but phone is still the most important channel. Not only that, with so much business moving online, the phone experience might be your only chance to have a really personal connection with the customer, so you better make it a good one. These experiences can determine whether or not that person becomes a brand advocate or a detractor. And in the age of social media, word-of-mouth marketing is more important that ever. Customers are paying less and less attention to traditional forms of marketing, while paying more attention to what their friends, family, and social circles say about your brand. Proactive phone systems impact the brand experience in that they demonstrate to the customer how easy (or difficult) it is to do business with you. Another buzzword I hear thrown around a lot these days is “low-effort” customer service. There was a Harvard Business Review article that talked about “Stop trying to delight your customers.” They care more about you reducing the amount of effort it takes for them to get what they want from you. A system like US Airways says to customers that they are really easy to do business with. But again, I really think companies can even take it one step further by proactively pushing information to the customer. For example, one of the most common reasons customers call US Airways is to check on the status of their flight. When a customer calls, the system recognizes their phone number and sees in their purchase history that they have a flight that day, so it proactively suggests providing them an update on their flight to Atlanta that day, or whatever. What if instead, the system just sent them a text message with their flight information, before they even called? I see that as really going above and beyond.

Based on your customer lifecycle section, in our experience they may be calling in for reasons that span many departments (sales, technical support, hr). The person in charge of building the IVR may not be in a position to bring these departments together. What person or role within an organization can help to tie these departments together in order to provide a proactive IVR that becomes multi-departmental?

That’s a really good observation, and to be honest, I don’t think there is one position that launches these kind of initiatives. At US Airways, I talked to the vice president of reservations and customer planning. It made sense that he led the project because his department would be most impacted by customers using IVRs. In other organizations, it might be someone like an IT director or CIO. Or, as I mentioned, a lot of times these purchases come out a of a strategic customer experience project. So it might even be a project manager.

In your section on ROI, you mention some great measurements to determine if the system is doing its job. One that has been of primary concern to many of our customers is simply “have we addressed the needs of everyone who is trying to contact us.” In a proactive system it might be hard to distinguish “they hung up satisfied” vs “they hung up dissatisfied.” Are they any tricks or methods (like surveys) to distinguish between the two?

If someone hangs up before talking to someone, or responding to a proactive offer, this would be considered abandoning the call (I think I mentioned abandonment rate). That’s is bad. That means that the proactive solution you offered didn’t help them, or they just didn’t like the idea of using an automated system — they want to talk to someone. Some people are like that, they just want to talk to someone. As for calls where they do reach a solution, you can ask after the proactive answer is suggested, “Did this provide you what you are looking for?” Then you can easily see in your analytics the percentage of calls where the customer reached the right solution, or they had to be transferred to an agent. Then, of course, there’s always NPS surveys, although I would be really careful about who and how often you send these.

Over the past decade, there has been such a shift within organizations toward reducing the phone and increasing web self-service or web chat. You have effectively shown that there is still a lot of room to innovate on the phone. Is there a renewed trend in improving the phone experience rather than trying to get people away from it?

I don’t know if I’d say renewed, as much as continued. I think most companies recognize that phone will always be a fact of life. I still think there is a lot of companies out there that don’t realize there really is still innovation in this arena, which is another reason why I wanted to write this article.